On November 28, after a 74-day weapons-testing hiatus, North Korea launched its third intercontinental ballistic missile. From a technical standpoint, the ICBM test was impressive, exceeding the performance of North Korea’s two prior long-range missile tests on a number of metrics. Just as importantly, it laid bare a fundamental flaw in the Trump administration’s approach to Kim Jong Un’s nuclear ambitions: the notion that there remains any window of opportunity in which the United States can keep him from acquiring a mature nuclear capability deliverable by ICBM.
The notion that North Korea has not yet achieved these most advanced capabilities has helped fuel the administration’s apparent interest in preventive military strikes against Pyongyang. The reality, however, has long been that Kim intends to retain his most dangerous capabilities—including the ability to strike the United States. It is long past time for Washington to develop a strategy that carefully manages, rather than blithely denies, this state of affairs.
North Korea’s latest missile flew for nearly 1,000 km at an altitude of 4,500 km and stayed aloft for over 50 minutes before splashing down east of Japan. By contrast, its previous ICBMs, which were both tested in July, flew for 37 and 47 minutes, respectively. Indeed, North Korea has tested these missiles at lofted trajectories, firing them straight up into the air at steep angles to achieve a long flight time without circling the earth. (If the November 28 missile had been fired on a standard missile trajectory as opposed to a lofted one, it might have flown for 13,000 km or 8,100 miles.) This latest test allows North Korea to claim that it can hit the entire continental United States with a nuclear weapon.